Povich Rewind: When Senators Were Kings


Povich Rewind: When Senators Were Kings
Oct 31, 2019

The last time and only time a Washington baseball team (Senators) won a World Series — before their surprising Game 7 victory over the Houston Astros Oct. 30 — was in 1924. Shirley Povich was a young sportswriter on The Washington Post. Seventy years later, Oct. 22, 1994, he remembered the memorable day in a story for The Washington Post.

The likes of it had never been known before. This was baseball history. The Washington Senators in a World Series. This is not fiction. It happened in 1924. I was there. The Washington Senators vs. the New York Giants of John McGraw, in the seven games of the Fall Classic.

In America’s mind-set, it ranked as one of the great improbables, to be considered with such other unlikelihoods:

That we would put a man on the moon.

That Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games would be excelled.

That a chimpanzee’s co-star in an old Hollywood film would be elected president of the United States — twice.

It was never thought that the Washington Senators, long scoffed at as the American League’s patsies, would ever win a pennant, much less a World Series. You remember the World Series, the annual event that would have started tonight, if it hadn’t been canceled because of a players’ strike.

For most of the years of the century Washington’s baseball teams had been the butt of the constant vaudeville joke — “Washington, first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” But there they were, that October day 70 years ago, winners of the American League pennant and squaring off against the Giants in the first game of the World Series before 35,760 at Griffith Stadium.

I was in the press box, along with 150 other reporters whose desks were a plank in the upper deck behind home plate. As a kid sportswriter for The Washington Post I could be trusted only with doing the play-by-play — a no-fail job.

My neighbor in the press box, according to the seating plan, was to be, of all people, Babe Ruth. He had signed on to cover the World Series for the Christy Walsh Syndicate. That sort of thing was commonplace for the game’s big stars. They would be provided a press box seat, along with a ghostwriter and telegraph operator, and never set their pen to paper.

But minutes before the game, the word had come over the wires that Ruth had suffered an appendicitis and had been rushed to Emergency Hospital. Thus, his ghostwriter also dismissed himself for the day.

When Christy Walsh arrived and was told about Ruth’s absence, and why, he bellowed quickly, “Get me an operator!” Walsh took Ruth’s seat and began to dictate: “Washington, D.C., October 1, by Babe Ruth, paragraph, quote. As I lie here, in Washington’s Emergency Hospital, as a native New Yorker my heart is with the Giants, but as an American Leaguer, it is my duty to root for the Senators.” And so it went.

Anyway, it is most proper to relate how the Senators got there, into that World Series.

They got there by looking the vaunted New York Yankees in the eye in the last month of the race and knocking them out of the pennant, won by the Senators by a two-game margin. Remember, these were the Yankees who’d won the last three AL pennants — the Yankees of Ruth, Bob Meusel, Joe Dugan, Wally Pipp, Wally Schang and Everett Scott, plus the pitchers Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Bob Shawkey, and Bullet Joe Bush.

They got there under the surprising leadership of the youngest manager in AL history. “Griffith’s Folly,” it was called, when owner Clark Griffith selected his 26-year-old second baseman, Stanley “Bucky” Harris, as his new manager.

It was in the final days of the pennant race that the upstart, astonishing Senators took it to the Yankees, wiping out their league lead by winning 16 of their last 21 games. It was Walter Johnson, who, above all others, was seizing the moment. The Legend kept the Senators alive by throwing a 13-game winning streak at the Damn Yankees and their hopes of a fourth straight pennant.

The shine was off Johnson’s fastball, but not all of it, and he was also relying on a sweeping curve. Ask who, at the age of 36, in his 18th season with the Senators, was the leading pitcher in the American League and the answer is Johnson. He posted a 23-7 record and of course he led the league in strikeouts and ERA, and lent his own .283 batting average to the proceedings.

Unquestionably those 1924 Senators were the class of the league. Teaming with Johnson to give them superb pitching were the veteran left-handers George Mogridge and Tom Zachary. Striving for more depth late in the season Harris divined something about Curly Ogden and claimed him on waivers from the Athletics. Ogden gave Harris eight wins in a row.

That was the year too when the relief pitcher was invented by Harris. For that job he selected the big Texan, right-handed Firpo Marberry, whose delivery included sticking a huge (size 13) shoe into the batter’s face, and then letting loose his steaming fastball. Marberry set an AL record by appearing in 50 games.

And those Senators could hit. Four .300-plus swatters — the outfielders, Goose Goslin (.344), Sam Rice (.334), Earl McNeely (.334), and on first base the slick Joe Judge (.324). The weakest hitter on the team was Manager Harris himself (.268), but he was not an easy out.

Besides Judge and Harris in the infield were the ex-Yankee shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh and a young grab-everything Ossie Bluege on third. The Senators’ catcher, a clever one, was little Muddy Ruel, a .283 hitter and the only big league ballplayer ever known to be admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States.

A series of challenges came October 1924, with the Senators a World Series team, and now the nation’s capital exploded emotionally. Inured to the excitement of presidential inaugurations, calm in the midst of history-making legislation and callous to the fetes for visiting princes and potentates, the population went wild at the approach of the Series. For the pennant winners, a Pennsylvania Avenue parade led to the White House, where both President and Mrs. Coolidge promised to attend the Series opener. They would attend all four home games.

The sentiment for the Senators against the Giants was nationwide, with Walter Johnson’s coast-to-coast admirers having lusted for that day when he would finally be on the World Series stage. Unfortunately, it would support the aphorism that hope deferred is often bittersweet. Johnson made two starts, lost them both, though they were tough, hard-bitten defeats.

In that Series opener, Johnson pitched seven consecutive shutout innings over one stretch and fanned 12, but was beaten in 12 innings, 4-3. He was the victim of cheap home runs by Bill Terry and George Kelly into the temporary bleacher seats that fronted the left field wall, installed to accommodate more fans.

Zachary held the Giants to one run in the second game until the ninth, when Kelly and Hack Wilson singled home runs to make it 3-3. But the Senators got to Jack Bentley in their half of the ninth to win it on Peckinpaugh’s double.

The games moved to the Polo Grounds and the Giants took the Series lead, two games to one, by beating Marberry, 6-4. And now it was Mogridge starting the fourth game. For the Giants it was Virgil Barnes and he had trouble with Goslin.

If Johnson was number one in the hearts of Senators’ fans, Goslin was number two. He swung the biggest bat on the Senators. He cared not whether the pitching was left- or right-handed. He hit home runs from his exaggerated, left-handed stance, crowding the plate so often that the umpires commanded him to stand back. He once jested of his prominent beak, “With my pull stance I was a one-eyed hitter. Couldn’t see past my nose. If I coulda seen that pitch with both eyes I’da hit .600 in this league.”

In the third inning of Game 4, Goslin got the Senators a 3-0 lead with a three-run homer off Barnes. By the fifth, the Senators were in front 5-1 with Goslin driving in four. The Senators won, 7-4. Goslin’s contribution: 4-for-4.

In Game 5 Johnson gave back the Series lead to the Giants when he weakened in the eighth, also mishandling a bunt, and was a 6-2 loser. Evidence that he wasn’t well-rested was seen in his mere three strikeouts. Across the nation Walter Johnson fans were saddened.

For Game 6, with the Series back in Washington, Harris not only made the choice of a winning pitcher, Zachary, but personally saved the Series from ending in six games in favor of the Giants. With McGraw’s team holding a 1-0 lead, Manager Harris singled to right to get both runs home in a 2-1 victory that extended the Series into a seventh game.

A Fitting Finale

For the vital last game in Griffith Stadium, the President and Mrs. Coolidge were present again, along with 31,677 fans. They had no inkling of the high intrigue that had taken place before a ball was pitched.

Manager Harris had hatched a plot. He would start right-hander Ogden to trick McGraw into starting the Giants’ left-handed batting order. Meanwhile he would have his own left-hander, Mogridge, warming up secretly under the stands. After Ogden faced one hitter, Mogridge would go in, keeping such feared left-handed hitters as Terry at a disadvantage.

Ogden struck out Freddie Lindstrom on three pitches, then walked Frankie Frisch and Mogridge came in. But the game would take a dreary turn for the Senators with the Giants going into the eighth inning with a 3-1 lead.

Then, the Senators rebelled. Nemo Liebold, pinch-hitting for rookie third baseman Tommy Taylor, doubled down the left field line. Ruel, hitless until then in the Series, singled. Bennie Tate, batting for Marberry, walked to fill the bases. But their hopes sagged when McNeely flied to Irish Meusel in short left.

This left it up to Harris, who met the issue, and the ball. He singled to left to get two runs home for a 3-3 game.

Now Harris needed a new pitcher going into the ninth and the crowd was clamoring, “We Want Johnson!” When Johnson strode to the mound the stadium was in an uproar. He could yet win a World Series game and so much of America would be pleased.

However, when Frisch tripled with one out in the top of the ninth, it was ominous. Here Harris ordered an intentional walk to Ross Youngs. Now, with Johnson facing Kelly, a long fly could beat him. He disposed of Kelly on three wicked fastball strikes, got Meusel on an inning-ending groundball, and it was extra innings.

Trouble for Johnson too in the 11th. Pinch hitter Heinie Groh led off with a single, and Lindstrom sacrificed. Now it was Frisch, the triple-sacker of two innings before. Johnson dealt with him by striking him out. Facing Youngs and Kelly again, Johnson repeated his heroics of the ninth inning — walked Youngs intentionally and fanned Kelly for the last out.

A bit more trouble for Johnson in the 12th. Meusel led off with single. But Johnson fanned rookie Hack Wilson, got a force out and a fly out and had pitched his fourth consecutive shutout inning in relief.

In their own 12th the Senators would emerge as World Series champions. Lady Luck had beamed on them. Against the Giants’ fourth pitcher, Bentley, Ruel with one out lifted a pop fly to catcher Hank Gowdy behind home plate, an easy out, except that Gowdy stepped on his mask and the ball spilled out of his mitt, a World Series boo-boo that would be long remembered. Whereupon, the reprieved Ruel doubled down the left field line to put the winning run on base.

Johnson, a strong hitter, batted for himself and grounded to shortstop Travis Jackson, who fumbled — a big break for the Senators, with Ruel holding second. Now it was McNeely who would be remembered for all time for his “pebble hit.”

Third baseman Lindstrom was poised for a routine play on McNeely’s sharp grounder, maybe an inning-ending double play. And then for the Giants — horrors. For the Senators — glee. Whatever McNeely’s ground ball hit, a pebble or a divot or a minefield, it took a freak high hop over Lindstrom’s head into the outfield for a single and Ruel flew home from second with the run that won everything for the Senators.

In Griffith Stadium the crowd catapulted out of the stands to thrash onto the field and to dance on the dugout roofs, refusing to leave the park until long after nightfall.

The next day, of course, it was up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House for the World Series champions, the streets lined by tens of thousands. The city’s joy was best expressed, perhaps, by the enthusiasm of the men on the hook-and-ladder float of the Cherrydale, Va., Fire Department, which flaunted a huge banner that read: “Let Cherrydale Burn.”

It doesn’t seem like 70 years ago.

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